Heat Exhaustion vs Heat Stroke: Separating Fact from Fiction

You don’t need to go to medical school to understand the basic information about heat exhaustion and heat stroke, but you should know there is a lot of misleading information out there. Perpetuated by highly visible online sources, some of the most popular myths about heat stroke are not just misleading but dangerous. Rocky Mountain Urgent Care wanted to go about separating fact from fiction in a way that would help our patients and families stay safe this summer.

Heat Cramps vs Heat Exhaustion vs Heat Stroke

While there are some important differences, creating a clear-cut definition between heat exhaustion and heat stroke is, perhaps, itself the biggest myth of all. Like other trusted health providers as well as the National Weather Service, Rocky Mountain Urgent Care prefers to conceptualize heat-related illnesses on a continuum of increasing severity between heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Even still, in the right circumstances, a person may experience a heat stroke without first showing any noticeable signs of heat cramps or exhaustion. Rather than a detailed analysis of human anatomy and physiology, what’s most important is to recognize the symptoms and their severity so as to seek water and cooler temperatures before more serious, or even life-threatening, consequences emerge.

  • Heat Cramps: The mildest form of heat-related illness, heat cramps may still include severe, potentially even debilitating, cramps that typically begin with the hands, feet, or calves. Generally tense muscles are another symptom. While warmer temperatures can help our muscles get and stay loose, it’s also hard to relax when it gets too hot. Hydration, cooler temperatures, and rest should be all you need to deal with garden-variety heat cramps. It may cause a flare-up of some existing medical condition, but if you’re an otherwise healthy person, you’ll probably feel some mild muscle soreness in the morning at the worst.
  • Heat Exhaustion: This middle but still very serious condition includes some combination of the following symptoms: fatigue, nausea, headache, aches and pains, excessive thirst, drenching sweat, cold and clammy skin, dizziness, fainting, and slowed heart rate. You may or may not end up going to the hospital. The recovery is more likely to feel like an odd “hangover” in which you might be able to struggle through your day or you may have to spend a couple days recovering from what feels like the worst hangover of your life.
  • Heat Stroke: In addition to the symptoms of heat exhaustion, heat stroke is accompanied by a rapid rise in body temperature to 104-106 degrees Fahrenheit. Additional symptoms include confusion, loss of consciousness, very rapid OR dramatically slowed heartbeat, convulsions, and excessive sweating or a lack of sweating with hot, flushed, dry skin. People who are experiencing a heat stroke need to take immediate action—or have immediate action taken for them. This includes getting to a cooler environment, using ice or water to cool the person down, and going to the ER as soon as possible. Typically, people who experience a full-blown heat stroke will spend 1-2 days in the hospital, followed by weeks of not feeling like themselves, and may not completely recover for two months up to a year.

More Information about Heat Strokes and Heat-Related Illness

There is both exertional and non-exertional heat stroke, which is just what it sounds like. Active adults who push themselves too hard are at risk for exertional heat stroke. Children and the elderly who are unable to cope with the temperatures and humidity during a heat wave are at risk for non-exertional heat stroke. To stay as safe as possible this summer, we also recommend you check out our other resources about heat-related illness:

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